Nature buffs know Tasmania's landmarks by heart but the island has no shortage of wilderness and unsung whistle-stoops, writes Rick Eaves.
THE island state is probably best known to travellers as the home of "must visit" icons such as Cradle Mountain, the Gordon River and Salamanca Place. More than any other state, though, Tasmania offers a compacted diversity of landscape, history and microclimate that demands meandering exploration rather than making a beeline for your destination.
The possibilities are endless on an island geologically scrunched into nooks and crannies and iced with the world's best beaches. We unveil some secret gems, unsung whistle-stops and a forgotten high road.
Some of the best-kept secrets are just hard to get at. Others aren't on the prime touring route - returnees get there second time around. Tullah, on the west coast, is right under your nose and on the major route - it's just too much on the way to somewhere else. The west coast hub of Strahan is one of Tasmania's top-three destinations. Tullah is about halfway there from the Bass Strait ferry terminal in Devonport but, to be honest, suffers a slight glamour deficit owing to its past as a mining, then dam-building, camp.
The dominant architecture is workmen's quarters - fibro, transportable with generic mesh-metal fences - so the potential is not so obvious. What is plain is that the place is surrounded by rainforest, lakes and dramatic peaks, including the imposing Mount Murchison. Not much of Tullah is visible from the road.
The characterful Tullah Tavern is right by the highway and stops a few for lunch by the log fire. Radford Woodcrafts is also worth a visit just to see, touch and smell unique timbers, including precious huon pine.
Off the highway is a most surprising retreat. The original workmen's quarters from the days of dam-building have been converted to the affordable but special Tullah Lakeside Chalet. Wine in hand by the huge log fire, you look out on beautiful Lake Rosebery. Paddle kayaks on the lake, ride bikes or walk along its edge. If you're fit, climb Mount Farrell or Mount Murchison. It's no-frills beauty for people whose cars have racks on the roof, front and back.
Rocky Cape National Park
Tasmania is best known as a place of wild beauty so any national park promises to be pretty special and well visited. Somehow, a few of Tassie's "official" gems remain lightly trodden, including the north-west coastal haven at Rocky Cape. The global charisma of Cradle Mountain has led to issues of overcrowding on the famed Overland Track and helps dictate a north-central-west-south touring circuit for most visitors.
The equally stunning north-west is harder to fit into the schedule and so Rocky Cape is free, most days, to look like it's still cooling after the big bang. Dramatic lichen-covered outcrops - much of it ancient quartzite, some of the oldest rocks in the state - bound aqua-blue bays, edged with untouched white sand. The feel is similar to Freycinet or Wilsons Promontory. Easily accessible at east and west extremes are Aboriginal caves, 8000-year-old middens and other significant sites. This is a park aimed at day walkers (no campsites), with ideal overnight bases at Boat Harbour or Wynyard to the east, or Stanley and Crayfish Creek to the west.
The Crayfish Creek caravan park is a standout - leafy, close to a river and beach and with a "treehouse" option for honeymooners and live-lifers. The uphill Postman's Track and the coastal walk to Anniversary Bay, both best accessed through Sisters Beach at the east end of the park, are an ideal taste of what Rocky Cape offers.
The Gordon River is a special place and thoroughly deserves its World Heritage listing. However, it's not the only wild river reflecting mirror-still ancient rainforest on the wild west coast. The Pieman River, 80 minutes drive north of Strahan, offers a cruise that is equally memorable. The key to this experience is the cruise boat.
The 80-year-old huon pine launch Arcadia II survived World War II patrols in her youth. The intimacy (10-15 people is typical) is doubly memorable after sharing the Gordon boats with up to 200 punters. It's four hours return and you're free to sit on the deck, with tannin-black wake peeling off the hull right beneath your feet and with eagles very often overhead. Occasionally, rare azure kingfishers flit through the rainforest trees that crowd the banks.
At a rustic jetty near the mouth, disembark for a walk past weather-beaten shacks. It's extreme isolation, boat-access only, but a "shackie" or two will usually be there, happy to chat. You can walk among hundreds of driftwood logs massed by the river mouth. Huge waves break outside. It's powerful and inspiring.
The departure point, the former mining outpost of Corinna, is now a cosy little resort with a variety of accommodation and adventure options. To get there you have to cross the river on the tiny vehicle barge called The Fatman. Fish, hire a kayak or walk into pockets of the Tarkine wilderness, stretching from here to Arthur River in the north-west corner of the island. There's a cruise there, too, but that's another story ...
Freycinet Marine Farm
Sometimes romance is lacking at the farm gate and the cellar door - where you expect charm, provenance and lifestyle there is often a million-dollar showcase and an employee of the week scheme. Freycinet Marine Farm, on the way into the renowned Freycinet Peninsula, is the real deal. The aptly named Fisher family - Giles, Julia, Lily and Sam - run a small-scale oyster farm in a place of incredible beauty and live on-site. The peaks of the national park form the backdrop to daily chores in the Greater Swanport River estuary.
Giles, in the packing shed by the estuary, pulls oysters fresh from wet racks, shucks and packs for a local restaurant. Lily, 8, hangs off Giles's gumbooted leg. Julia shucks sixes and dozens with lemon quadrants for the stream of tourists who somehow find them, while Sam, 3, toddles between the outdoor settings where fly-drive connoisseurs make declarations about "the best they ever had".
A simple sign by the road is the promotional budget spent. That the Fishers sell most of their product at the farm gate is testament to the power of word of mouth and to the superb quality of the oysters they produce.
While images of Wineglass Bay provide the lure to Freycinet, the township of Coles Bay is already most people's idea of peaceful perfection. Essentially a shack town, 10 minutes drive past the oyster farm, its beaches, boat-sheds and jetties are backed by the spectacular peaks of the Hazards.
Tasmania has a wealth of convict-built sandstone buildings - and towns that hang their hat on retaining collections of these evocative monuments.
Oatlands flies under the radar, despite having the largest collection of sandstone buildings in a village setting in Australia. Like Tullah, it seems to be too much on the way to somewhere else, situated halfway between Hobart and Launceston, a very short detour from the Midlands Highway. Oatlands has 87 original sandstone buildings along its main street, allowing visitors a sense of immersion in authentic colonial character. Some significant buildings include the 1830s commissariat's store, the jail and the officers' quarters.
The highlight for history buffs is the Oatlands Court House, a wonderful example of a Georgian public building and the oldest supreme courthouse in rural Australia. Built with convict labour in 1829, it's also the oldest building in town. The Callington Mill is the third-oldest windmill in Australia (1837) and has been lovingly restored. The sandstone walls are half a metre thick. A cottage there houses about 2000 dolls from all over the world.
Richmond, Ross and Evandale are Tasmania's best-known sandstone villages and perhaps offer snappier food and shopping - if only because of a more advanced (or self-conscious) concept of sandstone as a currency. Oatlands is the one to walk through, though - you'll find more forgotten sheds at the back corners and a sense of histories weathered, faded, cracked or ongoing.
All those lonely sheep runs and sandstone manors of the Midlands make for pleasant poetic musings at the wheel but the more adventurous traveller might choose to go over the top. The Lake Highway is a mix of sealed and gravel roads beginning at Deloraine, climbing south through a pass in the Great Western Tiers at the northern edge of the Central Plateau and continuing across the lake-spangled "roof" of Tasmania, connecting to the Midlands Highway just north of Hobart. Cradle and other peaks that define Tasmania's wilderness rise just to the west.
The area around Miena and Liawenee is flat, exposed and gets regular snow between mid-autumn and spring. Trout fishermen know it well, with hundreds of lakes a short drive (or long walk) from the central Great Lake. Shacks abound, mostly empty in winter when true locals are huddled by the open fire at the welcoming Great Lake Hotel.
Drive with snow on the ground if you can. It's soft wilderness adventure meets a scene from Fargo. Beware of sheep driven along (not across) the roads between their high and lowland pastures. Stop at Pine Lake before you get to the plateau to see precious pencil pines. This unique conifer has a fairytale texture and lives for more than 1000 years.
On the southern slopes of the plateau, stop to love historic Bothwell.
Doubles at Tullah Lakeside Chalet from $90, (03) 6473 4121, tullahchalet.com.au.
Discovertasmania.com is a great place to find Tasmanian accommodation and adventure.
Rocky Cape is about 70 minutes from Devonport.
For more about Rocky Cape and other Tasmanian parks, see parks.tas.gov.au.
The Pieman can be reached via Zeehan (40 mins) and The Fatman barge or via the 123-kilometre unsealed Western Explorer via Marrawah.
Cruises daily, $79 for adults, $39.50 children, (03) 6446 1170. Corinna.com.au has details and accommodation options.
Freycinet Marine Farm
The Freycinet National Park is reached via Coles Bay, about 200 kilometres from either Hobart or Launceston.
For Freycinet Marine Farm (and budget accommodation), see freycinetmarinefarm.com.
Oatlands is about an hour's drive from Hobart or Launceston on the Midlands Highway.
For information in Oatlands, go to the Heritage Highway Tourism Centre, 85 High Street, Oatlands. Open seven days, 9am-5pm.
Deloraine to Miena (Great Lake) is about 1½ hours' drive. Miena to Hobart is about three hours.
Great Lake Hotel has accommodation from $45 a single, family units $150 a night for two adults and up to three children, (03) 6259 8163, greatlakehotel.com.au.
With the kids
GENERALLY speaking, Tasmania is kid-friendly. Here are a few things to be aware of, though.
Tullah, the Pieman River, Rocky Cape and the Lakes are wild places. The lakes and rivers are typically deep and cold and the forests (especially on the west coast) are dense and vast. It may be a no-brainer but keep children close, always in sight, in these places. The characterful Arcadia II cruise allows an intimate experience of the Pieman River but if you have small children you'll need to be vigilant.
At Oatlands, traffic is light so it's a relaxing family walk. The grounds and park at Callington Mill — fenced with original stonework — are also great places to run off a case of the highway sillies. If you visit Tullah on a weekend, there's a great little steam engine, named Wee Georgie Wood, that runs trips around a loop at the edge of town. The running schedule can be patchy so check the timetable at tullah.org/wgw Another west coast train adventure is the Wilderness Railway from Strahan to Queenstown.